The Nostalgic Traveler: Old Paris by the Book

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Photo by Susan Harlan.

I’m starting this column by going nowhere.

Or rather, I’m going to my bookshelf. Over the last few years, I’ve amassed a small collection of vintage travel guides for France: a Baedeker, a Michelin, a Fielding Guide. A few others. They are all blue or red: the colors of travel, it would seem. The books have come from flea markets, antique malls, and used bookstores at home and abroad. I keep them in a stack on a small table in my living room, and when I wish I lived somewhere else – when I wish I lived in Paris – I pick one up and flip through it. Each one is a different size and weight and marked by the wear of travel and the passage of time. The last time I went to Paris, I took one of these books with me to remind me of all sorts of histories I don’t know.

On this last trip, I ended up underground and surrounded by books. I spent two weeks on the research level of the Bibliotheque Nationale, a carpeted world accessed by way of vertiginous escalators that plunge you down into rooms organized by desks and shelves. There’s a glassed-in garden in the middle of the floor, and looking into it, I almost expected to see animals, as at a zoo, but I saw only other researchers wandering the corridors opposite me. For the many hours I spent in this underground place, I almost forgot that I was in Paris. Paris is a city of views. But in the library, there are no views. Nothing is visible. There is no city.

Now, when I open my old travel guides, they remind me of the library’s massive towers, which are also a collection of sorts. They are shaped like open books. During an unexpected February snowstorm, these four book-buildings were transformed into something resembling the set of Doctor Zhivago. They rose up out of flat, white space. The towers are striking, but they’re terrible for storing books: a lesson in the perils of prioritizing form over function. The library’s books have to be protected from the light, which streams into these windowed volumes and threatens to destroy the actual volumes within, fading them to nothingness. A library that destroys books. I imagine there are some old travel guides somewhere on the shelves, the shades drawn down to protect them from the sun.

So when I was in Paris, Paris was not a place. It was a book. And it was a stack of books on my desk. In the mornings and evenings, before and after my workdays, I walked the city and thought about how walking resembles reading. My travel guides map out space; I was also mapping out space, wandering around a cold and virtually abandoned city. I stood alone in the Cour Napoleon of the Louvre, as I did once many years ago, also in the dead of winter. The walker is not always a flaneur, not always a detached observer moving through space. The walker is also a reader of space, someone who constructs a city as she wants it to be. I was my own travel guide.

I walked along the Seine and looked at all the green metal bookstalls, their volumes in neat rows. The Bouquinistes. And I walked in and out of the used bookstores in Menilmontant, the neighborhood where I was renting an apartment. So now, when I sit on my couch and go through my old travel guides, they remind me of other, absent books and of other trips undertaken by anonymous people. These books imagine and re-imagine Paris for countless readers who wandered its streets, books in hand, mapping out routes in their minds and then walking these routes. Received wisdom dictates that the tour book is bad. It makes you a tourist, not a traveler. It mandates a superficial approach to a city. It discourages exploration and discovery. But there is more to the matter. These books are also powerful totems. Tourists relied on these guides – yes, sometimes to a fault. But these volumes were their companions in a strange world known only through other representations: other books or films or images.

If these books are totems, then they remind us that the city has an ancestry. The people in Paris today are only a shadow of all the people who have ever lived there. Like all cities, Paris is alive. It is always changing, and it is also always dying. It is a city of cemeteries and underground skulls. Some things pass away and others persist. Restaurants open and close; pensions are turned into apartment buildings; streets are demolished or widened. My books record some of this. They record a shared history and a personal one: the journey of the book’s owner. The scuffed and faded covers tell lost tales of travel. And the signatures on their endpapers claim an ownership that has passed away. Now they are mine, and I write my name in them, too.

A little red book embossed with flowery gold type, my 1891 Baedeker Paris et ses Environs would fit quite nicely in your pocket. And it certainly did – it was the Manuel des voyageurs for the Edwardian tourist who fancied him or herself able to consume all the culture and monuments another country might have to offer. Founded in 1827 by a German publisher, the guide was famously mocked by E.M. Forster in his novel A Room with a View: the novelist Miss. Eleanor Lavish takes Lucy Honeychurch’s book away and insists that she explore Florence on her own. Indeed, when Lucy ends up “In Santa Croce with no Baedeker,” the title to chapter two, things start to happen. Life starts to happen. It is perhaps appropriate that A Room with a View has itself become a Baedeker: an indispensable tome for the literary tourism set. I can’t think of Florence apart from it.

For many decades, “Baedeker” stood for “travel guide,” and baedekering just meant traveling. The guide to Paris promises to reveal the city’s “principales curiosities” to “le touriste ordinaire.” The guide is obsessed with maps. Paris is mapped out on page after page, in various sizes, colors, perspectives, and levels of detail. In the back of the book, several long street maps fold out like paper dolls, the city’s avenues unfurling themselves in your hands and falling to the ground. Paris is a calming shade of peach, almost pink. The map of the Louvre folds out beyond the borders of the book: the Ecoles hollandaise, flamande et allemande of one of the palace’s wings can’t be contained. The Baedeker wants to be a scroll. Please, it says: Let me be a scroll. It chafes against its book-ness. The maps represent an expansive world. A green map of the Bois de Boulogne promises to help the reader “s’orienter et de se diriger a volonte.” Freedom to choose your own path through the park. The liberty of moving on your own, under tress and past terrace cafes, through a vast and seemingly endless landscape. Of course, the book comes along with you, in case you get nervous: the cover is soft and bends easily in your hand – you could shove it in your velvet handbag. It’s there if you need it, or if you need something to read as you sit on a park bench. Something to ground you in space. The book’s edges are marbled in blue, purple, and brown, faded by thumbing.

The Baedeker believes that Paris is a city of monuments you should know. The city a collection of significant places, and why these places matter is revealed through short lessons of dates and tidbits of information. This is the restriction Lucy Honeychuch felt in Florence: you must learn certain things about the past. To know these things is to be cultured. The visitor to Paris is also told what to do. You learn that a statue of Talma can be found in the vestibule of the Theatre-Francais (which was built in 1782, but now has a new façade on the Rue St. Honore). A clear day is ideal for a visit to La Sainte-Chapelle, constructed to house the relics the king brought back from the Crusades (which are now at Notre-Dame). You can see the gold dome of Les Invalides from far away. The Eiffel Tower is une curiosite unique. Go here, and then here, and then here. Baedeker’s Paris is sometimes my Paris: when I’m bound by maps, when I’m standing on a corner, consulting my Plan de Paris par Arrondissement. Another little red book, but one that presents you with a city of streets and street names. The Paris of today. You should always follow new maps. If you follow old maps, you are bound to get lost, or at least to end up in a place other than you intended.

When I put down the Baedeker and pick up my next book, I jump forward more than half a century. Fielding’s 1956-57 Travel Guide to Europe was a mid-century standard for the American tourist who didn’t quite know where to go or what to do, although Temple Fielding preferred the terms “pilgrim” and “voyager,” suggesting, as they do, a journey filled with adventure and promise. After World War II, the Bronx-born Fielding decided it was time to make Europe available to Americans who might be intimidated by the notion of a European vacation. He proposed a modern Grand Tour. His first guide, published in 1948, was modeled on several military orientation books he had written for new recruits at Fort Bragg, N.C. Travel discipline and military discipline. Both the traveler and the soldier live by rules; they seek to master a process.

The Fielding Guide is a no-frills tome: a black cover with a red spine, and larger and heavier in your hand than the Baedeker. It would be impossible to put in your pocket. You would need a bag to tote it about. But it looks sleek and straightforward. The endpapers present maps of Europe, but that’s all the mapping Fielding is interested in undertaking. He’s far more invested in sussing out particular things in a landscape – consumable curiosities – than in representing how a city’s streets fit together. He has a playful authority: he acknowledges in a note to the reader that, “…you and I are bound to have violent disagreements at time, due to the necessarily arbitrary structure of this kind of writing.”

So what does Paris hold for Fielding? A lot of shopping. He writes of gloves, cravats, and gold, of cutlery, lingerie, and umbrellas. Of furs, pocketknives, and cigarette holders. Of all manner of luxury goods. He writes about Hermes and about “women’s things.” Paris is a city of women’s things. Hosiery and dresses. Trois-Quartier is the best department store in Paris, he says. No competition. He notes that, “a French brassiere does a very special something for a gal’s morale.” He also issues warnings: Look out! Some perfume shops will leave you smelling like “a scarlet woman.” The American shopper in Paris requires guidance. Go to Paris for glassware – Baccarat, bien sur – buttons, and Brentano’s for books in English. Don’t bargain in “respectable places,” and for heaven’s sake, don’t buy anything mechanical like a fountain pen or cigarette lighter. The French are wretched at such things. Paris is a world of objects, an enormous store with glass display cabinets stuffed to the hilt. It’s also a world of art, food, literature, and monuments, all of which are folded into Fielding’s appreciation of the visual and into his conviction that these things belong to the tourist, like a fine pair of gloves. He assures us that, “Paris still has her old-time institutions like the Eiffel Tower, Opera Comique, fabulous perfumes, Cartier jewels, Lindbergh’s Le Bourget, Sorbonne, Folies Bergere, Arc de Triomphe, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mona Lisa, and 10-dozen others.” Institutions are not all made of stone. Palaces and monuments are fine, but what matters is also found in books, and in a fine show, and on a lady’s wrist. Paris can be consumed. It is all yours. This is sometimes my Paris, when I buy an object so I’ll remember something, or when I’m peering into people’s apartments, or when I’m window-shopping or looking up at the coupola of the Galleries Lafayette, a stained glass cosmos in a grand palace of things. You want to take something home.

Consumption is important to Michelin, too, which has its own symbolic system by which things are made available to you. My 1964 guide is a tall and narrow book with a weathered, and now-iconic, red cover embossed with the Michelin Man, who runs joyfully alongside a rolling tire. He shows up again throughout the guide, as at the beginning of the restaurant section, where he is depicted sharpening his knife over a rather large and juicy bird. The Michelin Man is suggestive of a stack of tires, but his original Horatian name when he was introduced at the Lyon Exhibition of 1894 – “Bibendum” – suggests drinking and festivity. He is a kind of household god, divorced from the home and set free in the wide world. He wants you to live well. He wants you to eat well. He is a force of judgment: both guide and tyrant.

The Michelin focuses on hotels and restaurants: Le confort. Several pages into the guide, the reader is informed that he should “Walk into the hotel Guide in hand” and “In a restaurant, put it on the table.” Presumably, this signifies that he’s a savvy consumer, thus guaranteeing the best service, that most fetishized of things. That “Guide” is capitalized suggests that the tome is almost another traveler, another proper subject. And you and your Guide are going to drive through France. Paris is just one city on your drive, its designated section set apart by a thin red line that runs along the edge of the pages, allowing you to flip right there. Like the Baedeker, this is a book of maps, but these maps map differently. They depict not city streets, but Autoroutes: numerous red arteries and veins that lead into the heart of Paris, a gray blob peppered with outsize icons of the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre-Coeur, Norte Dame, and other landmarks. Black boxes indicate the locations of the train stations. The maps for the 1939 Michelin were used during the war. They knew how to map out space.

But Michelin really loves its symbols: little icons that appear in rows next to each listing for accommodations and restaurants. Paris is a world of symbols, a universe of illustrations that promise food, drink, and a good bed. Little chateaux icons of diminishing size indicate the luxury level of a hotel; criss-crossed spoons and forks – from five for luxury to one for “plain but very good” – perform the same function for restaurants. What amenities are available at these restaurants and hotels? – There are bottles of wine: carafe and bouteille. A bathtub. A shower head, dropping down little dots of water. Or, if the place does not have running water, a little pitcher in a bowl. A dog. A dog crossed out. A radiator. Stars that look like snowflakes and indicate the best places to eat in all of France (“well worth the journey”). And of course, a tiny car. There is no icon for radio, or “Wireless during meals.” It is simply noted as “Radio,” with or without a bold, black line through the word. Leave sightseeing to the other guides: with Michelin, you drive, eat, and sleep.

Of all travel guides, Michelin has absorbed the most criticism: it is a commonplace that from 1900 and through two World Wars, its auto-oriented approach to tourism destroyed regional France, altering the landscape of the country forever. And so the Michelin guide is about loss; its France is a France that is gone. The guide’s car-bound vision of Paris is strange to me, probably because I have never driven in Paris. I have been driven around in Paris, and it’s pretty thrilling to loop around the Etoile. In Godard’s Breathless, Jean Seberg sits in the passenger seat as Jean-Paul Belmondo drives her around, the city sweeping past them, just beyond the back of her head. Once, when I was in college, I drove in the forest of Fontainebleau, in the shadow of the palace. Some friends and I had set off from Paris and gone into the woods for a picnic, into this shaded place where courtiers used to hunt. After lunch, we decided I should learn how to drive a stick shift. I have a black-and-white picture of our picnic. I remember buying black-and-white film so that my vision of Paris might correspond more closely to the images I had seen before. I don’t have a picture of the road we drove that afternoon – stopping and then starting again, my foot attempting to master the clutch and the gas – but it was a wide dirt road, sandy in color and wet from the rain. The trees above us seemed to know they were the subjects of countless paintings and that they were greater than us because they knew the past. Because they were the past. They seemed to know they were the trees of dead kings.

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